It is a no-brainer, really. Any teacher can tell you that children become more engaged when they can personally feel connected to the material they are learning at school.
This lesson was reinforced for education writer Gregory Michie, who describes teaching middle school in a Mexican American neighborhood of Chicago. He assigns Sandra Cisneros’ lovely little book, The House on Mango Street, the story of Esperanza Cordero, growing up in Chicago. Michie explains: “The more we read, the clearer it became to me that every story in the book was filled with… little details and nuances that only an insider… would know. Inside words, inside phrases, inside sights and sounds—peeks into a world Nancy and the others knew well but had never before seen within a book’s pages. Mango Street was unlike anything they had ever read, and the girls absolutely loved it.”(Holler If you Hear Me, p. 58)
It is also one of the reasons—in addition to the urgent need to preserve heritage languages—that schools in American Indian communities are teaching their own customs and languages, and why, in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Public Schools offers students the chance to attend the Anishinabe Academy, whose mission statement boasts, “We exist to engage urban Indigenous students by integrating and reclaiming Native American identities, cultures and languages through authentic academic experiences.”
An important court decision late last month protects Tucson, Arizona’s right to incorporate Mexican-American studies in its public school curriculum. Judge A. Wallace Tashima declared Tucson’s 2012 ban on the La Raza program an example of “racial animus ” by two different Arizona state superintendents of public instruction.
Maggie Astor reports for the NY Times: “In a 42-page ruling, Judge A. Wallace Tashima concluded that the elimination of the program in 2012, on the premise that it violated a state statute enacted two years earlier, infringed on students’ First and 14th Amendment rights.” In his decision, Tashima, a judge in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, wrote: “The court is convinced that decisions regarding the MAS (Mexican-American studies) program were motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears.”
Astor describes how two Arizona superintendents of public instruction quashed Tucson’s ethic studies program: “The ruling focuses primarily on the actions of Tom Horne and John Huppenthal, two former Arizona schools superintendents who concluded that the Mexican-American studies program for middle and high schools, sometimes referred to as La Raza, violated a statute known as A.R.S. 15-112. Passed in 2010, it bans public and charter schools in Arizona from offering courses that ‘promote the overthrow of the United States government,’ ‘promote resentment toward a race or class of people,’ ‘are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group’ or ‘advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.'”
Although an Arizona auditor determined that Tucson’s program did not violate A.R.S. 15-112, “Mr. Huppenthal directed the department to withhold 10 percent of the Tucson Unified School District’s state funding because of the violation of the statute, and the district decided to end the Mexican-American studies program as a result.”
The court considered personal blog comments posted by Huppenthal including: “No Spanish radio stations, no Spanish billboards, no Spanish TV stations, no Spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English.” He is also quoted by Astor complaining that the La Raza program “presented a misleadingly negative view of American history and taught a ‘toxic construct’ of ‘oppressed and oppressor.'”
In 2011, the National Education Association hired researcher Christine Sleeter to review academic studies of multicultural programming. While her language is dry and academic, Streeter summarizes the research literature as overwhelmingly endorsing such programs: “Research on the academic impact of ethnic studies curricula… while not voluminous, shows that such curricula, when designed to help students grapple with multiple perspectives, produces higher levels of thinking. In short, there is considerable research evidence that well-designed and well-taught ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students.”
James Banks, considered the father of multicultural education, challenges the attitudes of those who banned Tucson’s La Raza program: “Individuals can develop a clarified commitment… to their nation-state and the national culture only when they believe they are a meaningful part of the nation-state and that it acknowledges, reflects, and values their cultural group and them as individuals… A significant challenge facing educators…is how to respect and acknowledge community cultures… while at the same time helping to construct a democratic public community with an overarching set of values to which all students will have a commitment and with which all will identify.” (Diversity and Citizenship Education: Global Perspectives, pp. 9-12).
Astor reports that Arizona’s Department of Education has declared its officials will, “enact and abide by whatever ruling is handed down by the court.” We must hope that Tucson will bring back a strong ethnic studies program.